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The Great Storm of 1980

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It was the closest thing to a hurricane I have ever experienced. It wasn’t as violent as it was lengthy in duration. The worst had passed after 72 hours, but the system proceeded to stall over the islands and refused to leave. I recall it was more than a week of steady rain pouring from a dark thick cloud cover consisting of millions of shades of gray.  It was most depressing after the initial excitement of the  storm had passed,  followed by several days of constant rain, (varying between drizzle and downpour) wind and for Maui it was damned cold… I really began to appreciate the sun and one of the main reasons I moved to Maui in the first place.

However it was during the evening hours of the second day of the storm when something happened that would change my life forever…

Today’s radio is no way like it was back in 1980. I knew what a computer was, but at that time computers were what ran NASA or our accounting system at the station. The live announcer had much more to do with the day to day operations of the station. During the telling of this story, you will learn just how true that statement is…  On the morning of January 8, 1980 I woke up to a most unusual sound. It was the sound of rain, but not quite the same familiar sound that rain usually makes. It was different enough to peak my curiosity, so I got out of bed and shuffled over to the bedroom window and peered outside. Instead of the usual green grass and foliage,  I found myself gazing upon a large pond where my backyard used to be. So it wasn’t the sound of rain hitting the ground that woke me up and caused me to investigate, it was the sound of rain hitting a rather large body of water. The weather report had warned of a large tropical depression heading up towards Maui from south of the Big Island. It was a “typical” forecast more or less expected on rare occasions during our winter season so it didn’t seem like that big a deal at the time. Yet the rain was really coming down hard and  and on top of that it was steadily increasing in intensity as I stood there.

During this period in my life I had obtained my Amateur Radio “Ham” license, passing the FCC exam roughly ten years ago and by this time was heavily involved in the local Ham Club and in emergency communications for the local civil defense agency. By the looks of things outside, I thought maybe I’d better head into my “Ham Shack” and see if there was anything going on I should know about.  I dialed my receiver to a local shortwave frequency where I always used to spend the first two hours of my typical daily schedule shooting the breeze with a few of my fellow Ham buddies. There was already excited talk on the channel mostly about the tropical depression, which during the night had suddenly turned itself into a full blown tropical storm.

It must have been the weekend, because I wasn’t scheduled to go into work that day. The roof over the ham shack was an “after thought” addition to the house and the aluminum roof sloped downwards away from the main house rather unconventionally and when standing up, the top of my head was only inches from the ceiling. This was significant for an entirely different reason this day in particular because by then the sound of the rain hitting the aluminum roof made it difficult to hear my extremely concerned wife speaking to me over my shoulder as I sat at my desk, let alone try to hear what was going on on the radio.

The usual “ham” gang was on the air that morning. Jerry, out in the boonies of Peahi.  Dave, upcountry in Pukalani.  Mike, way out in Kaupo in East Maui. Wesley, an old timer up in Olinda and myself in Kahului just a block or two away from the AM radio station where I was employed. The National Weather Service had nothing but bad news for us that fateful morning. We were expecting 45 to 50 mile per hour winds with gusts of up to 75 miles per hour and there was several more inches of rain on the agenda as well. Already I could sense the wind picking up in the  bushes outside the ham shack window and in the mango trees in the back yard. An hour later the house was beginning to show signs of distress and I had a wife and young daughter looking at me with eyes that were saying “oh crap, what are we gonna do?”

The mood was suddenly disrupted by the telephone. In those days it was an actual telephone hanging on the wall in the kitchen that actually rang. It was the radio station wanting to know what frequency the guys and I were yakking on. It wasn’t my boss who wanted to know,  it was in fact the United States Coast Guard. Evidently there was a crisis in progress due to the storm and they were aware that we were a regular feature on the 40 meter “ham” band every morning and sure enough not 30 seconds after I hung up, the Coast Guard cutter radio operator was calling me on frequency giving some weird U.S. Coast Guard radio call sign. By this time the weather outside had built up to a loud raucous roar and I had to resort to headphones to hear what the radio operator was saying… With my young family of three all huddled around me and my radio gear, we were all starting to get more concerned with all the storm related goings-on outside and curious to boot as to what the coast guard wanted with my rag tag ham radio morning crew.

Sam, the radio operator on board the cutter, filled us in on the situation. A small 45 foot sail boat had been caught in the storm, ripped from it’s mooring and blown way off course and completely lost in 25 foot waves and ungodly strong rain and wind… and worse, we learned there was a family of four on board. There was a certain amount of luck involved here as it so happened the father was an amateur radio operator. Another stroke of luck was that the coast guard was able to pick up his distress call.  Before long the frantic father of two, trying to speak as calmly as he could, began feeding us information while myself, the the other members of our “rag tag 40 meter ham morning crew” and the coast guard radio operator tried to triangulate the exact position of the tiny craft using our radios. All the while I couldn’t stop thinking about what this guy must be going through out in this storm on a small wooden sail boat surrounded by waves bigger than a six story office building, that awful howling wind and pouring rain. Even at our location,  I doubt I could have stepped outside without scuba gear (I jest)  it was coming down so hard. In fact, while all this was happening my neighbor’s roof across the street found its way onto my front yard.

We stayed on the air for the rest of the morning giving badly needed moral support to the poor skipper on that boat, who through out the whole ordeal kept his cool… even when the children in the background started to sound a bit panicked. We could hear their inquiries “off mic” about what was happening and he kept it all together.  I have to hand it to him. I don’t think I could have pulled off what he did had I been in his shoes. It took about 10 minutes to get an actual “fix” on the boat’s location and the cutter finally zeroed in.  As the storm built up in intensity it was touch and go as to whether the that brave Coast Guard cutter crew would be able to see that tiny craft in all that violent weather.

When the cutter finally found them we all let out a hardy whoop and I nearly spilled my sixth cup of hot coffee in the process. In all the excitement, roughly fifteen minutes after the cutter had retrieved the wet and frightened family, their tiny craft with everything the that family owned, sank straight to the bottom. It was determined later that as the boat was being towed back into Kahului Harbor, the waves were just too high for the small craft to handle. The only home this family had ever known could no longer stay afloat. In seconds it was gone. But they were safe and we were some of the most jubilant and full-of-ourselves bunch of hams you’d ever see in your entire life.

The next day I was pulling an afternoon shift on the air and I got a surprise call from the Mom, whom I bet was just as instrumental in keeping spirits up that fateful morning as anyone else involved. She was calling from a phone booth in the parking lot of the Kahului Shopping Center. I asked her if she wouldn’t mind doing an interview about the ordeal and she agreed. It was probably the most interesting and gripping interview I have ever conducted. She explained how they had lost everything when their boat went down, which was indeed their home for several years. That boat contained everything they owned. Food, clothing, memorabilia, everything. They lost a lot but she made sure we all knew that they were alive and thankful for it. She thanked the crew of the cutter and all of us who were on the ham radio airwaves that day, everyone  who was involved in the process of getting the boat located, minutes before possibly an even larger disaster could happen.

But the story doesn’t end there… While she was talking to me, a lady (to this day I don’t know who she was) pulled up in front of the phone booth and after our conversation, picked her up and took her shopping. Later when I was talking to the father, I found out that the mysterious lady was a well to do woman who was listening to the interview on her car radio and and decided to help them out. The generous lady spent more than a thousand dollars buying food, clothing and providing a place for the now homeless family to stay while they got back on their feet. While listening to the interview she happened to spot the young mother of two in the phone booth, pulled into the parking lot and offered to help. It was an extremely heart warming end to a very exciting story. It’s all there in the January 8, 1980 edition of the Maui News. Read all about it. The Great Storm of 1980.

Written by ldreynolds

September 15, 2012 at 11:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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